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Career Paths:River People and Portfolio People

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In elementary school, I took a career aptitude test. It said that I should become an insurance actuary. That path held no interest for me and I didn’t take it.


We are sometimes told that picking a career is an either/or process: be an engineer or a physician, a salesman or an architect. You can’t be both: you can’t order the rib roast and the spaghetti in the career restaurant. Depending on your nature, that rule can either be comforting or make you feel that you are trapped in the wrong body.


During my stint as a project management consultant, an older woman came up to talk during a break in a lecture I was giving. She asked how I became an engineer, a consultant, and a paramedic planning to become a physician assistant. After I told her about my sequentially focused, but meandering career path, she called me “a portfolio person” and told me about an unusual career theory.


The theory describes two types of people and their career paths. The first are “the river people,” who know what they want to do at an early age and “just follow the river.” Decide in high school that you want to be a physician and you have the map of your river for a good decade, and at least a general outline for many years afterward. Or go into the family business, whatever it is.


Then there are “the portfolio people.” Rather than having one career, they periodically take new paths, sometimes without abandoning the original one. Instead of one career, they end up with a portfolio of them. At any stage, they may have a few portfolios open or be using one to help get another one started.


Years have gone by since that conversation and I think about it often. I don’t think we chose to be river or portfolio people: we just are.


While my “portfolio” path has taken me through what may seem like disjointed jobs, I have found that little of what you learn along the way is ever wasted. As a PA, I still use the science I learned; the engineer’s method of problem identification and solution; the paramedic’s ability to work in a crisis and quickly build rapport with patients; and the consultant’s ability to work on teams.


Be comfortable in whichever type of person you are. And, if you are interested in reading what it’s like to be a portfolio person, please try my book, Old Man on Campus at the link below.



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